May brings the best transitions of the year. Neotropical migrants return, wildflowers bloom and butterflies emerge. It’s my favorite month. I find it hard not to smile all month long.
But each year also reminds me that we get only so many Mays. The older I get, the more precious each May becomes.
It’s been more than 15 years, but I still recall the magical May morning I showed Nora a scarlet tanager through a spotting scope and the evening Emma and I called in a whip-poor-will.
May begins innocently enough. Trees are just beginning to leaf out, so colorful birds are easy to see. They’re even easier to hear. And it all actually begins the last week of April.
On the ground, May apples push skyward through the forest floor. Trilliums and spring beauties bloom. And morels appear, seemingly overnight.
My wife found the first morels of the season a week ago and we celebrated with morel omelets. The earthy aroma of a handful of freshly picked morels is a sensory delight everyone should know.
However, it is my ears that signal the arrival of May. The hum of carpenter bees means we pull out the badminton rackets and swat the bees hovering around the sheds. By whacking 15 or 20 each day, we keep them under control, without chemicals.
The high-pitched trill of American toads means they’re gathering in puddles and ponds to mate and lay eggs. Next month toadlets will appear in the yard.
May mornings typically begin before I even get out of bed. Warmer temperatures mean we sleep with open windows, so I track the month’s progress by the sounds I hear at first light.
The flute-like yodel of a wood thrush is music in its purist form. In a few weeks, they’ll be nesting in understory vegetation throughout the woods.
But when I hear the liquid gurgle of brown-headed cowbirds, I’m reminded that no wood thrush nest is safe. Female cowbirds watch from the tree tops to find nests of wood thrushes and other potential hosts. Then she lays her eggs in their nests and lets other bird raise her chicks.
Robin nests are already underway. Last year they nested on a post just under the roof on the back porch. This spring momma robin built her nest on top of a Carolina wren nest box perched safely inside an open sheds. As I write this, she incubates four sky blue eggs.
Robins nest in backyards all across North America, so I can’t imagine anyone who has never heard the song. But many may not be able to put a name to the voice. It sings a series of bright musical phrases, “Cheerio, cheerily, cheer up.”
In May, two singers return that can be confused with robins. If you hear something that sounds like a robin in a hurry, it’s a rose-breasted grosbeak.
The phrases are just as pleasant and musical, but the pace is much faster. A series of buzzy or hoarse phrases comes from a scarlet tanager. Its song is often described as a robin with sore throat.
Both the rose-breasted grosbeak and scarlet tanager are spectacularly red. Compare their luster to a male cardinal to convince yourself that, in nature, not all colors are created equally.
To my eyes, a cardinal pales in comparison to a grosbeak’s breast and neither can compete with a scarlet tanager for sheer brilliance.
May is also baby season. Young gray squirrels, fox squirrels, chipmunks and ground hogs get their first glimpse of daylight.
And some does may drop their fawns by the end of the month. If you find a fawn, seemingly abandoned, resist the urge to take it home. The mother is nearby and probably watching.
Plus, wild babies are notoriously difficult to care for and possessing them is illegal.
One exception to the hands-off policy applies to grounded baby birds. A young, flightless mourning dove, robin or cardinal on the ground is doomed to be eaten by cats or snakes.
Put them on a branch of a tree or shrub where parents can feed them and they’ll be much safer from predators.